Is Sojourners afraid of the big bad backlash?

Intersections International has expended considerable resources creating Believe Out Loud, a campaign that’s

… a collection of clergy and lay leaders, LGBT activists, and concerned individuals, working together to help the Protestant community become more welcoming to gays and lesbians.

Using community organizing and social marketing strategies, we support individuals and churches in their efforts toward LGBT inclusion. A partnership of the country’s leading LGBT advocacy groups, both religious and secular, Believe Out Loud seeks to accelerate the existing Christian movement toward LGBT inclusion and significantly increase the number of local churches and denominations that are fully-inclusive of LGBT individuals, both in practice and policy. In doing so, we seek to create a widespread Christian movement for LGBT equality in the church and in broader society.

Central to the effort is a YouTube video that demonstrates what a clear and simple thing a word of welcome can be to an LGBT family desirous of church. (I note with some sadness that The Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982 seems to be used as some sort of pew-block device turning away this family. [Watch at 0:37.])

Other than the whole Hymnal thing, it seems sort of helpful. To me, anyway. So why would the web site for Sojourners say no to it? Believe Out Loud campaigners submitted the ad to Sojourners, then got a note back.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.”

Intersections International’s Founding Director, Rev. Robert Chase, rang them up to clarify. Surely there had been some sort of misunderstanding?

I called the folks at Sojourners and asked what the problem was, what the “sides” in question might be. The first response was that Sojourners has not taken a stance on gay marriage (the ad is not about gay marriage); or on ordination of homosexuals (the ad is about welcome, not ordination); that the decision, made by “the folks in executive” (why such a high level decision?) was made quickly because of the Mother’s Day deadline. The rationale kept shifting. The reasoning made no sense.

Perhaps Sojourners’ reputation as a hub for Christian justice-seekers is unwarranted? It seems a fair question at this point.

Does the organization not really believe in welcome for “everyone” in our churches or do they believe everyone is welcome, but they are afraid to “believe out loud” for fear of alienating some constituents? On one level, it doesn’t really matter. Their dilemma, apparently, is a ringing testimony for both the urgency and the necessity of this campaign since the issues they confronted are similar to those that face congregational leaders in addressing this concern within their settings.

Perhaps Sojourners is less a bellwether than it fancies itself – or at any rate so fears potential backlash that it won’t even take an ad buy of this nature?

“The appearance of taking sides,” or the fear of alienating certain readers and advertisers? By taking a pass, is Sojourners – whose paid web ads seem sufficiently set apart from editorial content to avoid such confusion – effectively taking sides anyway?

Sojourners is largely synonymous with the Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian writer and political activist best known as the founder and editor of the magazine running under the same name. We can only assume at this point that none of the media entities associated with the Sojourners brand wanted to “maximize visibility” for this particular cause.

Sojourners may have chosen not to participate, but you can. Watch the video, and share the welcome.

Posted by
Category : The Lead
Tags : ,

Comment Policy
Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted. We also ask that you limit your comments to no more than four comments per story per day.

  1. Elizabeth Kaeton

    Whaaaattt?? Sojourners????? Say it ain’t so, Jim Wallis.

  2. maleveque

    Extremely disappointed. I have sent Jim Wallis a message to that effect.

    – Anne LeVeque

  3. garydasein

    Sojourners has never been a progressive organization. I have never understood the hype over Jim Wallis, who fancies himself a centrist while attacking the “religious left.” On women’s issues such as reproductive rights and abortion, he is lukewarm. He says he is for equal rights for LGBTs but he is against marriage equality. He might be for the separate-and-unequal institution called civil unions. He would use religious prejudice to justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry civilly. In church, he will not bless a same-sex couple.

    LGBTs are too controversial for him to bother with.

    He also tends to attack secularists, people who tend to support full equality and see no reason for religion to dictate secular law.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  4. revsusan

    For the record, I didn’t like the ad. When asked for comment here’s what I said:

    I think I ‘get” what they were trying to do in terms of showing clergy folk how critically important their modeling welcome is for a congregation.

    And …

    • It reinforces stereotypes about churches being narrow, exclusive, cold and unwelcoming. It felt like the visiting family was walking a gauntlet of homophobia.

    • It modeled a hierarchical “father figure” telling the congregation what to do rather than modeling a nurturing collective process of teaching and affirmation that would have made the opening scene never happen

    • Finally, one of the parishioners uses a 1982 Hymnal to block the seat next to her (how rude is THAT?) and it’s CLEARLY not an Episcopal Church … given the vestments of the “guy up front”

    Bottom line: There may be Protestant contexts where this message is where they need to start but it’s not “culturally competent messaging” for the Episcopal Church and I could not commend it forward in our context.

    Just me with an opinion. Anything else you want to know?


    Now, ON the record:

    Jim Wallis should be ashamed of himself. BIG TIME. PERIOD.

    I’d have more to say, but it’s Mother’s Day and I’ve got a Laker’s game to watch. More later. (Stay tuned!)

    Susan Russell

  5. Richard E. Helmer

    @Susan, like you, I had trouble with the ad for its new twist on clericalism: the laity seemed to be cold and unwelcoming, and the cleric takes on the role of the “welcoming hero.” It’s a tragedy to take on one prejudicial bias while reinforcing another (however odd it may be, as the laity have been ahead of the clergy on this particular question in many places.)

    I agree that Sojourners needs to give a clearer and far less dissembling response than they have.

  6. Mary Caulfield

    My issue is with the ad as well. I had to watch it a couple of times to figure out the story. Following the story from the POV of the young boy, the whole thing felt unbearably tense and sad. I found myself thinking that if I were one of the parents I would just say, “C’mon, Charlie. How about we get breakfast? We’ve been thrown out of better places.”

  7. Jim Naughton

    Really don’t care for the video, but I think Sojourners’ rejection of the ad calls their leadership role on the religious left into serious questions. This isn’t just a matter of keeping a strategic silence on a particular issue: they refused people who are closely allied with them on other issues the right to speak. That’s a big deal. Jim Wallis’ credibility as a spokesperson for progressive Christians is at an ebb.

  8. John B. Chilton

    Hmm. I think the video is misunderstood. Isn’t it about the boy who has experienced rejection in the past and wondering if it happen again? He’s not able to discern whether this is a welcoming place until someone says it out loud. (Ok, it didn’t need to be clergy.) Most people don’t know the 82 Hymnal is the Episcopal Hymnal — and we’re probably one of the few denominations not to put only denomination’s name on The Prayer and The Hymnal (and Church Publishing (what church? – “The Church”)). I’ll concede that if my understanding of the video is not the common one, then the video doesn’t work.

    But the real issue is whether Sojourners taken more seriously than it out to be. Any group that really is progressive wouldn’t decline to be on the side of justice. Sojourners has given up the right to claim be best known for progressive leadership.

    Minor quibble with language: Sojourners has the right not to take the ad. It’s not violating anyone’s right to speech by doing so.

  9. Ann Fontaine

    I think the ad reflects the reality in many places – someone has to say Welcome – and so often unfortunately it takes the clergy stepping out. As to the Hymnal – no one but Episcopalians would even recognize it. Wallis is not and has never been a progressive- he is a conservative evangelical who plays the progressive card to sell his books and speeches. He is no friend of LGBT or women.

  10. My reactions to the video are pretty much along the lines of Susan Russell and Richard Helmer’s comments. I think it’s a terrible “ad.” What’s it an ad for??

    * The reactions of the pew-sitters confirm all that’s worst about the public’s stereotype of Christians as intolerant and hateful.

    * Why take such a gratuitous swipe at TEC (which is arguably ahead of all the non-Roman churches, with the exception of the UCC) by focusing in on our hymnal, when everything else in the video is just generic Protestantism? … Ann, I take your point that “no one but Episcopalians would even recognize it.” But Episcopalians will recognize it, and will wonder “WTF??” Why would BOL risk alienating one of its best church allies?

    * It defies credulity to suggest that a new family, on their first visit, would walk all the way to a pew in the front of the nave. [Honest to Pete! Have you ever seen that happen in your congregations??]

    * Finally, and most snarky: Could they possibly have found a smarmier pastor? I think not.

    I think the ad fails both as “story” and as “message.”

    I wouldn’t run the BOL video on a website I controlled, nor will I put it on my blog or FB page. How does it help LGBT people? or inclusive churches? or the still-too-many unwelcoming congregations?

    I certainly agree that Sojourner’s explanation seems mealy-mouthed and disingenuous. Maybe it’s really because they don’t support LGBT people. Or maybe it’s that they thought (as I do) that the ad is an unfair, ad hoc smear against the whole Christian community, but didn’t want to say so.

    Admittedly, those marvelous “God is still speaking” ads from the UCC could also be characterized as “smears.” But the UCC ads all ended by saying what they are for — namely, a positive message about full inclusion — and issued a welcome to all comers. It’s that “So what?” that’s missing from the BOL video, it seems to me.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

  11. John, we all view these things through our own lens. You observe about the little boy: ”He’s not able to discern whether this is a welcoming place until someone says it out loud.” I disagree. I think the camera makes it very clear that this is – without exception — a very unwelcoming place … no matter what the smarmy pastor says at the end. The unrelenting disdain and whispering and finger-pointing from the congregation makes clear that this family won’t be welcome, no matter what the pastor may wish.

    And a P.S. to my earlier comment: What’s with that bouncy background music? The female voice singing, “For once in my life, I have someone who needs me”? Whose perspective is that meant to echo? And what does it have to do with the story in the ad?

    Well … as y’all can probably tell … this video has danced on my last nerve. I’ll shut up and listen now.

  12. tobias haller

    Well, the ad fails for all the reasons above. It also demonstrates unawareness of the fact that however welcoming clergy may be, it is the congregation that will determine its own membership. Clergy can model all they want, and they should, but even a handful of “gatekeepers” can create the atmosphere of exclusion.

    And whatever the opposite of kudos is to Sojourners for a major fail.

  13. John B. Chilton

    So, I guess we should thank Sojourners for not running the ad.

    Tobias, you’re absolutely right that it’s the congregation that determines its own membership. I’m reminded of this true story: A vestry of a white congregation was wondering, during the food counter sit in days, what they should do if a black family should happen to visit one Sunday. It was agreed they should be treated like any other newcomer. To which one wag said, “oh no, not that.” The vestry had a hearty laugh at itself and the church.

    Visiting a church is, unfortunately, gutsy. I don’t if the congregation is giving them the hairy eyeball so much as ignoring them.

  14. a) when i walked into our local episcopal church for the first time nearly a year ago it was our rector who was the most welcoming. during passing of the peace someone who knew me from the university walked all the way around the sanctuary to come give me a welcome because i wasn’t exactly being warmly welcomed by those around me. so, having a pastor in the lead of being welcoming in a video like this resonates with my own personal experience.

    b) i am not happy with sojourners. i was wounded by growing up in southwestern virginia. having the voices of pat robertson and jerry falwell surround me culturally left me with a big distaste for the church. considering that my parents were academics, and my father wasn’t inclined to continue going to TEC (which he was raised in), that was my view of the christian church. it’s taken me a long time and a lot of soul searching to be able to accept the church into my life. messages like this by a group like sojourners, i believe, only continues to injure people who have already been injured enough.

    i hope that jim wallis and those who run sojourners come around and recognize that they are one of the front voices of the progressive christian movement, even if they don’t intend to be. if they aren’t willing to be one of the front voices then they, particularly jim wallis, needs to step back and allow for truly welcoming and justice seeking christians to take lead.

    Please sign your name next time you comment. Thanks ~ed.

  15. Sorry about that. Is this better? M. Brooke R. ? I hope so. I’d like to keep it at M. Brooke R. rather than my whole last name. I suspect there aren’t many R’s out there, and I’d be easy to find even with the information I’ve provided, but I’d like to keep a weee bit of anonymity, if possible….

  16. Tim Yeager

    Hi all. What is the status of Sojourners and the ad? Has there been any organized approach to Sojourners?

Comments are closed.